Gideon Mendell: Drowning World

Ground Control, Arles; 03/07/17 to 24/09/17

On the face of it, this is a fairly straightforward documentary collection on a simple subject: flooding. However, Mendell lifts it to a higher level with an interesting mix of visual approaches.

The first section is a series of portraits of flood victims, in situ in the middle of the flood. My first thought on seeing these was that Mendell must be incredibly persuasive to get people to take time out to pose for a portrait whilst up to their whatevers in floodwater. There are two in particular that stood out: the English couple (the coincidentally-named Waters) for their stoic, almost bemused, looks on their faces, and the man in Brazil up to his neck – a photo that seems like it must be an optical illusion until you see the door frame that confirms the water’s depth.


The middle section concentrates on the damage to property – this part isn’t as engaging or affecting as the portraits but the presentation makes up for that a little by being visually striking, or at least imposing: huge wallpapered prints show fragments of flooded houses at greater than life size.

The final section, and the one that relates most to the project that I am currently thinking about, is a collection of water-damaged photographs rescued from flooded properties. One set is blown up and mounted gallery-style, while a larger set is presented at original sizes in grids in a wall-mounted vitrine.

I am very much attracted to the obscuring effects of the various levels of water damage, and envisage possibly trying to replicate such an effect in my experiments to find visual metaphors for memory loss.

Main takeaway

Aside from the specific technique of obscuring parts of the image as discussed above, I think my key observation here is that it has something in common with the two of the three best exhibitions I saw in Arles (Wolf; Fukase): it looks at a single subject in visually different ways, allowing the viewer to think about it from different angles – adding up to a more rounded understanding, I think.